When I approach the task of learning text in Tanach, and especially coming up with something to write on the weekly sedra, I always begin with looking at the graphic appearance of the text. The natural divisions of holy text, all of Tanach, according to our tradition is letters, words, verses (often equivalent to more than one sentence in English), parashiot (roughly analgous to paragraphs), and books. (There are no chapters.) When one looks at the text, how things are grouped together is an indication of their relationships. If two ideas appear together, for instance, in the same פסוק/verse – this indicates there must be an important relationship between them. Somewhat similarly, if two ideas appear contiguously in two consecutive verses, we look for some relationship between them. In terms of large chunks of text, if ideas or incidents are brought together in the same פרשה/section or paragraph – we should be looking for the theme or relationship that binds them together. This is one of the most basic, and often neglected, approaches in learning Torah.
So, here’s the amazing observation. Our entire weekly portion, the whole סדרא, is one long section/פרשה. Usually, we can look at the weekly sedra as a bunch of discrete ideas; each in a separate parsha. Here, we’re intended to see it all of a piece. Paroah dreams. Seven rangy cows eat seven well-looking cows. He awakens, startled. Paroah dreams again. Seven poor, blighted stalks consume seven healthy looking stalks. He again wakens, startled, realizing it is all one dream. The wine steward recalls Yosef interpreting his (and the baker’s) dreams in prison, and the dreams coming true. Paroah has Yosef brought to him. He tells Yosef his dreams, but not identically as first related. After making clear that God assures a man’s well-being, not Yosef; Yosef interprets Paroah’s dream. Seven good years for the national economy; then seven years so poor that all the wealth of the previous years will be forgotten. Yosef advises Paroah with a plan to help ward off the disastrous effects of the famine to come; and Paroah responds by putting him in charge. Yosef is promoted into the elite of Egyption high-society, with new power, a new name, a new appearance, a new wife. Yosef goes out to tour the land. A program is instituted to prepare for the famine to come. Before the famine, Yosef has two sons – Menashe and Efraim. As the famine hits, Egypt is the only society in the region that is prepared. Now, all Egypt has to turn to Yosef for their sustenance. Yaakov, fearing his family’s starvation, sends Yosef’s ten brothers down to Egypt to buy food. Ten brothers, but not Binyamin. The brothers arrive, and we find them bowing to Yosef (though they don’t recognize this). Yosef keeps his identity hidden, but is thinking about his dreams in his father’s house. Yosef accuses the brothers of espionage. They deny it, and try to show their innocence. Yosef jails them, then offers to allow them to bring food back to their father on the condition that one brother remain hostage until they return again to Egypt with Binyamin. The brothers’ response is to see this as a Divine retribution for their cruelty to Yosef years ago. Shimon remains hostage and the brothers head home. On the way they discover their money still with them; and this, too, they see as part of a Divine response. They report to their father all that happened. Yaakov can’t bear the thought of Binyamin going to Egypt. Meanwhile the famine progresses. Yaakov finally agrees to send Binyamin, so the brothers may return to Egypt to purchase more food. Yosef continues his masquerade, and the brothers do not recognize him. After entertaining his brothers, Yosef sets them up to look like thieves and sends them on their way. The brothers are returned to Egypt, now dreading their fate after Yosef’s cup has been found in Binyamin’s bag.
Phwew! What a story! Hard to keep it all straight with all the action; and it is tiring retelling in one breath (even having skipped many details). What is the Torah teaching us by packaging all this together?
This long section contains within a pretty full review of the significant issues in Yosef’s life up till now. Yosef’s life has been distressful almost from the beginning. He has no way to explain the extremes and repeated threatening situations. In addition, his brothers are confronted with a frightening, mysterious situation in Egypt and no way to make sense of it. Or is there?
At the critical junctures, when there is an opportunity to try and explain or attribute control, Yosef and his brothers remember God. Knowing the Egyptian culture, how easily could Yosef had told Paraoh (and maybe himself), ‘I am a powerful person who will interpret your dreams’? Yet Yosef answers Paroah (41:16) ‘God will answer regarding Paroah’s welfare’. This was the same thing he had told the servants in jail (40:8), ‘God has the answers’. Whether in the depths of jail or standing before the king, Yosef makes clear who is the Master of all. How easily could Yosef have become bitter and despaired of a God Who allows him to suffer indignities at his brothers’ hands, and nearly be killed by them, and sold into slavery in a foreign land, and again persecuted by his master’s wife just when it seems things improved, and then to be forgotten in jail (40:23)? Yet we see at each critical juncture that Yosef in fact remembers and relies on Hashem, and credits any good that occurs to Him. Yosef believes and advocates belief in hashgaha p’ratit – individual Divine providence. No one’s life is abandoned. Whether we see it or not, the Divine hand is involved in everything. Everything we do, and everything that occurs is part of a dynamic interaction with God. Yosef knew this. Yosef believed this.
Yosef’s brothers also display this spiritual maturity as things get scary. They recall how they treated Yosef when they sold him, and wonder if the present threat is a connected punishment. Later, when Yosef’s cup is found in Binyamin’s bag and they are brought back to be confronted by Yosef (who is yet unrevealed to them); Yehudah confesses ‘God has found your servants’ sin’. Here Rabbeinu Hananel, citing the teachings of Ibn Shuib, explains that Yehudah is insisting that all the brothers are innocent in the present tense, but God has used this opportunity to catch them for their previous sin. Here, too, we see the acute awareness of Hashem’s involvement.
Yosef recognized God’s providence explicitly at positive moments when he could have built himself up; and implicitly recognized that same Divine providence was present in all those very difficult times that had led up to the present. Yehudah recognized that God’s justice is also inescapable, and could manifest itself even at times when opportunity arose yet the person was presently innocent. Both together emphasize that Hashem’s hand is always present, always involved in our lives.
The message of Hashem’s providence in the life of Israel is also a major element in Hanukah. The military victory leading to renewed national autonomy would be reason enough for celebration. Why the miracle of the oil? The miracle of the oil helps make clear that it was by God’s grace and blessings the small Maccabean army could defeat the Hellenists and Seleucids.
At the beginning of our first major exile, yet unforeseen, the Torah teaches us to never forget the Divine hand in all that occurs to us. Whether suffering the blows of exile from friends and strangers, or experiencing victories such as in Hanukah, we must always know that the hashgaha/Divine providence is at work. That is the foundation under our feet always, in trials and in victory. May Hashem open our eyes to see His light illuminating our paths.